Under the federal government of Stephen Harper, a strict communication policy was imposed on government scientists, requiring special permission to speak to the public about their work.
The government also cut funding to major research programs and was generally considered to be anti-science. Government support for science shifted away from pure scientific enquiry to focus only on commercially-relevant research.
The following piece by Evidence for Democracy’s Executive Director, Dr. Katie Gibbs, was published on Cochrane Canada’s blog in December 2015. Cochrane Canada is a network of health practitioners who encourage the role of science in the health care field.
“This past month has brought some stark and refreshing changes to science in Canada. During the federal election campaign—where science became a surprisingly prominent issue—the Liberals made a number of election promises aimed at strengthening science and evidence-based decision-making in Canada. Their commitments included bringing back the mandatory long-form census, letting government scientists speak freely to journalists and the public and making policy decisions based on the best available evidence.
So far, it looks like the Liberals are going to make good on these campaign promises and have already implemented a number of changes in a very short amount of time. One change is how science is represented in cabinet. Under the new cabinet that was sworn in on Nov 4th, science got a bit of a boost with what was formerly the Minister of Industry being renamed to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. This minister will work closely with the Minister of Science, making this the first time there are two ministers with science in their title. The Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, has said that this division will allow her to focus more on science that isn’t business focused, like fundamental and public-interest science, which didn’t get much attention from the previous government.
In the first few days after being sworn in, the science ministers moved quickly on two of their key election promises. To the delight of researchers, policy wonks and businesses alike, they reinstated the mandatory long-form census in time for it to be used for the 2016 census. The next day, scientists at Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada received word from their managers that if they received a media request they were free to do the interview, without having to get approval from managers or communications staff. There is still much work to be done to make sure that these new open communication rules get enshrined in formal policies and in the collective agreements for all government scientists, but this is a very exciting first step.
This much action on science issues so soon in their reign is excellent to see and shows that this government is making science a priority, but it’s important to keep in mind that these actions are the low hanging fruit – there is still much to be done to restore and strengthen science in Canada. Especially when it comes to rebuilding our science and research capacity. Publicly funded science in Canada saw repeated funding cuts over the past decade, especially in-house government science. The resulted in the loss of thousands of government scientists and reduced budgets for the Tri-Councils funding academic research. The recently released mandate letters for each of the ministers gives some indication of which types of research this government plans to support – for example ocean monitoring, sustainable technologies, and the effects of climate change on Arctic marine ecosystems – but it’s not clear what the details or funding levels will be. With the new government signalling strong support for science, now is the time for Cochrane Canada, and all researchers and health practitioners who support it, to seize this opportunity to turn this support into concrete actions and funding.”
And CSEB members should be vigilante in seeing that the new Liberal government lives up to these expectations! If you are interested in this issue or have some information/opinion to contribute, please visit our blog and get the discussion rolling!
Brian Free, CSEB member